The Social History of a Village: The Terra Incognita

The Social History of a Village: The Terra Incognita
Authors: Narayana Rao Bonthu; B. V. Sharma
Journal: Social Evolution & History. Volume 23, Number 1 / March 2024


Narayana Rao Bonthu, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad, India

B. V. Sharma, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad, India


Anthropology and social history have much in common in spite of establishing themselves as two disciplines. Almost every anthropological study has a social historical aspect, while social history is nowhere devoid of anthropology. But one problem is that they are tilted much towards one side. While a significant amount of research is being done in both fields, works that can be called social histories in the anthropological sense are rarely found. One such example is the seminal work on the Indonesian town. Even this highlights the lack of such works on the village proper. This calls for research in such orientation taking cues from both the disciplines and weaving them together in ample proportions. This paper asserts the need for such works after reviewing the relevant literature in anthropology and social history and trying to highlight the related research gaps.

Keywords: anthropology, social history, village studies, social evolution, Indian village.


‘Life is translation and we are all lost in it’ – stated Clifford Geertz in his famous book Local Knowledge (1983). This philosophical statement appears to expose only the lacunae in the academic understanding. But, paradoxically this does not limit the research enquiry but guides it. While talking about the inevitable erratum sprung from the intangible nuances, it also paves the path for meaningful discoveries.

Humans have been able to give birth to various disciplines in their thirst for knowledge and need for survival. This has manifested in the form of entities like Philosophy, Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Biology to the current subjects like Quantum-electrodynamics, Cybernetics, Bioinformatics, Genomics, Social Evolution, etc. and this chain of specialisation seems to have no end. Like anything else, this fission also has its own advantages and disadvantages. This calls for a scenario in which this unwinding of disciplines into sub-disciplines needs to be followed by a rewinding of these sub-disciplines into endless but relevant permutations and combinations in order to give rise to new disciplines and systems of inquiry to further enlighten the human being.

Social history and anthropology are two such entities. Social history itself can be considered as a union of anthropology and history. While history tries to generate time, anthropology tries to generate space. It implies that social history generates space-time. It does not mean that anthropology is devoid of time and history of space. It highlights the aspects of study that those two fields have been emphasizing and the potential that a work of social history with an anthropological orientation would have. A social history, when documented with a thick ethnographic description and varied perspectives, would present a mul-ti-dimensional view and holistic picture of the subject or aspect under study. This enhances the reliability and validity of the study. It also increases the significance and objectivity of the enquiry. The scientific nature of the research is strengthened when social history and anthropology work in union.

The possibility of and the efficiency that follows after establishing the Social History of a village as a means of understanding the community under study, or the country in which the community is located, or the humanity to which both belong, comes into question amidst a scholastic turmoil. Two important questions that arise here are – what is being studied and how. Theoretically, social history attempts to examine both the ‘space’ an anthropologist describes and the ‘time’ a historian clings to.

If we knew the whole biological, geographical and cultural setting of a society completely, and if we understood in detail the ways in which the members of the society and the society as a whole respond to these conditions, we should not need historical knowledge of the origins of the society to understand its behaviour (Boas 1930). If we travel backwards through the statement, it can be understood that the social history presents us the biological, geographical and cultural setting of a society and the larger society as a whole. Social history provides everything of a community. As the British scholar Harold J. Perkin (1973) argued, ‘Social history is not a part of history, but all history from the social point of view.’ As the societal aspects of human being’s being cannot be separated from other aspects of human existence, social history consists of the holistic analysis of specific units of people living together and definable in sociological terms (Hobsbawm 1971). This asserts the all-encompassing nature of the social history.

Turning to the second question, the relevance of studying a village is proved by the long history of village studies, which have been the foundations of anthropology. The case for studying villages rests largely on their proximity to people, their lives, livelihoods and culture, and on their role as a stage, a nexus of activity and a focal point of reference for individual prestige and identification (Marriot 1955). As an important social unit, the village profoundly influences the behaviour pattern of its inhabitants. Villages have existed for hundreds of years, having survived as the principal social and administrative unit through years of wars, the rise and fall of empires, famines, floods and other natural disasters. This ‘historical continuity and stability of villages’ strengthens the case for village studies (Dasgupta 1978). The village may be viewed as the point at which social, economic and political forces operating over a much wider field meet and intersect (Beteille 1996). Accordingly, social science research in India that undertakes intensive primary data-based case studies has mostly considered the village as its basic unit of analysis (Kumar 2017). At the same time, however, great care should be taken when conducting village studies as ‘the village is not the sole horizon of either sociality or meaning making’ (Mines and Yazgi 2010). The village is primarily ‘the locus of enquiry, but not its central problematic’ (Dube 2010).

For Andre Beteille (1980), the village is not merely a place where people lived; it had a design in which the basic values of Indian civilisation were reflected. The method of anthropology requires its practitioners to select ‘a small universe which could be studied intensively for a long period of time to analyse its intricate system of social relations’ (Epstein 1962). The relevance of studying the village can be viewed more in methodological terms. The village and its hamlets represent ‘India in microcosm’ (Hoebel in Hiebert 1971).


In fact, a phenomenal contribution to social history came from anthropology, especially from Clifford Geertz in the form of the phenomenological approach. His book, Social History of an Indonesian Town, published in 1965, was ‘an attempt not so much to re-create the past as to discover its sociological character’ and his account is ‘not a story and so has neither moral nor plot,’ rather ‘it is a theoretically controlled analysis of certain processes of social change and contains instead an argument’ (Geertz 1965). In that book, he said that the town of Modjokuto in 1952–1954 seemed to be well on its way towards becoming the kind of social miscreation that the world was likely to see in the coming years – a permanently transitional society. Both tradition and modernity started receding at an increasing rate, leaving only the relics of the former and the simulacra of the latter. This book echoes the relevance of social history, especially in the present. Such studies can explore the analytical territories that have not been explored yet.



One can find references to village life in ancient and medieval times. But it was with the advent of colonialism that village studies have gained momentum. Both the colonial past and post-colonial development remain very significant points of reference for Indian social sciences (Mucha 2012). Colonialists with reasons – both political and ideological – tried to understand the people in order to understand them better. In a sense, they tried to build ‘a bipolar constellation – the state and the village’ (Breman 1997). This construction of the village was in some ways seen as useful in rationalising the colonial dominance. It helped the colonial rulers to develop social and political theories about the ‘realities of India’ (Cohn 1987). The four core components that characterised the Asian village in colonial discourse were: political autonomy, economic self-sufficiency, social homogeneity and persistent immutability of the closed collectivity (Breman 1997). All this had encouraged both tribal studies and village studies in India. For a long time, anthropologists have been obsessed with tribal studies. But after a while, this has changed and they started concentrating on villages. At a time when primitive tribes were either in the process of disappearing or had already disappeared, the discovery of the peasantry – part society, part culture (Krober in Redfield 1965) – provided a new lease of life to the discipline of social anthropology (Beteille 1974). In moving from tribal to village studies, social anthropologists retained a very important feature of their craft, the method of intensive fieldwork. These standards were first established by Malinowski in the twenties, and by the fifties had been adopted by professional anthropologists around the world (Beteille 1996). But in analytical sense, it was a move away from Malinowskian ‘culture’ to Radcliffe-Brownian ‘structure’ (Patel 1998). It might be recognition that ‘social structure was as real as a sea-shell’ (Radcliffe-Brown in Panourgia 2002). In any case, its apparent boundedness as a self-reproducing community made the Indian village the pre-eminent locus for ethnographic investigation (Thakur 2013). The ‘village community’ was identified as the social foundation of the peasant economies in Asia (Breman 1997). It should be noted that the conceptual identity ‘is rooted in European ideology and European scholarship’ (Beteille 1974). Villages in non-Western contexts became ‘suspect’ locations of research (Borneman and Ham-moudi 2009). Although colonial administrators thought of the village as the atom of all the Eastern nations and empires, it was only the ‘Indian village’ that came to be viewed as the ‘quintessential Asian village’ (Inden 1990).

The credit for initiating village studies goes to Robert Redfield, who carried out a village study on Tepoztlan in Mexico (Redfield 1930). Building on Sir Henry Maine's contrast between status and contract, and Ferdinand Tonnie's contrast between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft and his own work on the Aztecs, Redfield developed ideas about small communities, folk culture, and the concepts of Little and Great tradition. Sir Henry Sumner James Maine, in his book ‘Ancient Law’, published in 1861, tried to ‘indicate some of the earliest ideas of mankind, as they are reflected in ancient law, and to point out the relation of these ideas to modern thought’. Distributed into ten chapters, this book was based on his lectures delivered for the Inns of Court. In this book, speaking about the land system in India, he claimed that land was held in common by groups of people. He presented more detailed ideas about villages in India in his next book Village-Communities in the East and West: Six Lectures Delivered at Oxford, published in 1871. Baden Henry Powell, in his book ‘The Land System of British India: Being a Manual of The Land-tenures and of the Systems of Land-revenue Administration Prevalent in the Several Provinces’ published in 1892, described the land system prevalent in India. In his later book published in 1896, ‘The Indian Village Community: Examined with Reference to the Physical, Ethnographic and Historical Conditions of the Provinces; Chiefly on the Basis of the Revenue-settlement Records and District Manuals’, he gave a fuller account. These studies have inspired further studies in and about India, especially the Indian village.

The Beginnings

A good ethnography must necessarily be a high art (Tax 2012). In this sense, the first anthropologically oriented village study was carried out by William Henricks Wiser. Both an academician (American anthropologist) and a Christian missionary, he worked extensively in Uttar Pradesh. He studied rural life in Karimpur village that falls under Mainpuri district. His work, along with that of his wife Charlotte, led to the publication of several books. Their first account of life there was published in 1930 as ‘Behind Mud Walls’. Later, Wiser published ‘The Hindu Jajmani System: A Socio-Economic System Interrelating Members of a Hindu Village Community in Services’ in 1936. While the former dealt with the caste system, the latter was concerned with the social and economic relations that might have served as the basis for, or the results of, the caste system.

A key observation: ‘The Indian village communities were little republics, having nearly everything they wanted within themselves, and almost independent of foreign relations. They seemed to last where nothing else lasted. Dynasty after dynasty tumbled down, revolution succeeded revolution, but the village community remained the same’ – by Charles Metcalfe, points to the significance of villages while also providing a starting point for the further studies. In the 1950s, anthropological engagement with villages developed in response to such type Indological and colonial-inspired representations of villages as mythicised ‘little republics’ (Atal et al. 2005; Gupta 2005). This was also, in a way, a response Dumont and Pocock's (1957) dismissal of villages as lacking social reality (Gallo 2015).

Village studies gained their momentum after Indian independence. The momentum came in the form and as a result of the work of American anthropologists like David G. Mandelbaum, McKim Marriot, Morris Opler and Oscar Lewis and Indian anthropologists like Mysore Narasimhachar Srinivas, Shyama Charan Dube and Dhirendra Nath Majumdar. The Community Development Programme introduced in 1952 gave a further impetus to village research. Such studies were encouraged by both the Planning Commission and the Ford Foundation.

The Turning Point

Coincidentally and fascinatingly, ‘Village India’ edited by Marriott, ‘India's Villages’ edited by Srinivas (1955), ‘The Rural Profile’ edited by Majumdar and ‘Indian Village’ by Dube (1955), all four were published in the same year, 1955. In a way, this was a turning point in the Indian social anthropology and village studies. Moving beyond a conceptualisation of Indian villages as timeless entities, anthropologists unravelled how caste intertwined with class, kinship and political factions to organise social relations and hierarchies within and beyond ‘rural communities’ (Gallo 2015).

The book India's Villages consisted of essays by the American anthropologists David G. Mandelbaum, Marian W. Smith, Kathleen Gough and McKim Marriot, the British anthropologists F. G. Bailey, G. Morris Carstairs, Eric J. Miller, William Hare Newell and Colin Rosser and the Indian anthropologists Mysore Narasimhachar Srinivas, Shyama Charan Dube and Jyotirmoyee Sarma, published in The Economic Weekly from October 1951 to May 1954. It was compiled by M. N. Sri-nivas.

David G. Mandelbaum, in his first essay, ‘Social Organization and Planned Culture Change in India’ (1954), deals with the interrelation between and mutual effects of planning and social organisation and the resultant culture change, and in his second essay ‘Technology, Credit and Culture in a Nilgiri Village’, explains the economic interrelationship of the Kota tribe of the Nilgiri with their neighbouring Toda, Kurumba and Badaga tribes and the recent changes due to the arrival of outsiders. In his paper ‘The Social Structure of a Mysore Village’, M. N. Srinivas largely discussed the village unity and presented the concepts of ‘vertical unity’, the unity between different castes in a village, and ‘horizontal unity’, the unity between members of the same caste in different villages, and presenting the village as an interdependent and largely self-sufficient entity. G. Morris Carstairs (1957) presents us with two contrasting notions – one of social change in Fatehpura, a village in Rajasthan once ruled by the autocratic Jagirdar regime in his first paper ‘A Village in Rajasthan: A Study in Rapid Social Change’, and a notion of resistance to social change due to the conservative nature of the Bhils that allows them to be governed by their traditional social and administrative aspects in his second paper ‘Bhil Villages of Western Udaipur: A Study in Resistance to Social Change’. Eric J. Miller in his paper ‘Village Structure in North Kerala’, while attempting to give a general picture of the social structure of village, identified village unity in North Kerala as a nebulous concept and distinguished between the pre-British and twentieth-century desam. William H. Newell in his paper ‘Goshen: A Gaddi Village in the Himalayas’ describes about the land, material factors responsible for infringement of caste rules, probable formation of a new caste and three institutions – kinship, marriage and Birton. Colin Rosser describes the pattern of a village called Malana, ‘A ‘Hermit’ Village in Kulu’, which he called so because of its social isolation and geographical remoteness, and discusses various features of the village's political and legal body, the village council. Kathleen Gough speaks about ‘The Social Structure of a Tanjore Village’, Kumbapettai, which she perceives as a Brahmin village, stressing the interdependence of different castes, the unity among the castes and in the village, and the current weakening of this unity. The ‘Social Structure and Change in a U.P. Village’ of Kishan Garhi in the Agra area was discussed by McKim Marriott, highlighting the economic progressive fragmentation of groupings, their intersection by kinship and caste groupings, and the current problems of the villagers. F.G. Bailey in his first paper ‘An Oriya Hill Village 1’, talks about the dilution of the unity and change in the economic life of a village named Bisipara due to its gradual integration into the larger economy. In his second paper ‘An Oriya Hill Village 2’, he talks about the effects faced by the institution of caste due to the economic change and the conflicts in the village social structure arising due to that. Alan R. Beals, in his paper ‘Change in the Leadership of a Mysore Village’, elaborately describes the disputes during a festival ‘Ayudha Puja’ in the fictitious village of Hattarahalli between the middle class, influenced by the Gandhian and English principles of social equality and democracy, and the conservatives, who believe in a social hierarchy determined by tradition and heredity. Marian W. Smith's paper ‘Social Structure in the Punjab’ is a description of the exogamous units and the conceptual boundaries of a village in the Punjab, an account of the interdependence of the Sikhs and Muslims living in it, and the changes brought about by the partition after Indian independence, and a derivation of a structural unit larger than the village. In the paper ‘A Village in West Bengal’, Jyotirmoyee Sarma presents a picture of the village life by describing its settlement pattern, agriculture, religion and administration. Dube, in his paper ‘A Deccan Village’, presents the social structure of a village named Dewara and the symbiotic relationship between its tribal, Hindu and Muslim inhabitants. This book, India's Villages, is a compilation of these 16 essays by the 13 diffe-rent scholars.

The book ‘Village India: Studies in the Little Community’, edited by McKim Marriott, contains eight papers by seven American anthropologists and one Indian anthropologist. Srinivas, in his paper ‘The So-cial System of a Mysore Village’ in India's Village, presents the village as a vertical entity comprising several horizontal layers, all representing different castes. E. Kathleen Gough, similar to her paper in India’s Villages, speaks about the dissolution of the traditional social structure of the Tanjore village in her paper ‘The Social Structure of a Tanjore Village’. In the paper ‘The Changing Status of a Depressed Caste’, the author Bernard S. Cohn describes various aspects and processes associated with caste mobility. Alan R. Beals in his paper in India's Villages discusses ‘the Interplay among Factors of Change in a Mysore Village’ Namhalli, a village near Bangalore, and speaks about the change in its social structure. ‘Notes on an Approach to a Study of Personality Formation in a Hindu Village in Gujarat’ by Gitel P. Steed is an account of personality formation, a study based on the cognitive approach. Oscar Lewis, one of the scholars who created significance for village studies in India, formulated the idea of ‘rural cosmopolitanism’ in his comparative study ‘Peasant Culture in India and Mexico: A Comparative Analysis’. McKim Marriott, based on his study in Kishangarhi, the same village mentined in his paper in India's Villages, conceptualized ‘universalisation and parochialisation’ in his paper ‘Little Communities in an Indigenous Civilization’, two concepts that have later become popular in anthropology. ‘The World and the World View of the Kota’, as suggested by the name, was presented by David G. Mandelbaum in his paper.

The compilation ‘The Rural Profile’ by D. N. Majumdar consists of eleven papers – ‘Functional Relations of Lohars in a North Indian Village’ by N. S. Reddy; W. David Hopper's ‘Seasonal Labour Cycles in an Eastern Uttar Pradesh Village’; ‘The Agricultural System of a Ceylon Jungle Village’ by Bryce Ryan, Chandra Arulpragasam and Cuda Bibile;‘Demographic Structure in a Polyandrous Village’ by D. N. Majumdar; ‘Population and Economic Structure of an Indian Rural Community’ by Edwin Eames; ‘Ranking of Castes in Telangana Villages’ by S. C. Dube; ‘Inter-Caste Relations in Gohana-kallan, a Village near Lucknow’ by D. N. Majumdar, M. C. Pradhan, C. Sen and S. Misra; ‘Village Studies and their Significance’ by M. N. Srinivas; ‘Methodology Problems in Social Science Research’ by Max Rallis; Merrill R. Goodall's ‘The Cornell-Lucknow Evaluation Studies of the Community Development Programme’ and ‘Some Aspects of Village Economy in Ancient India’ by Baij Nath Puri. The papers that have been included in this volume attempt to describe rural profiles and they have a bearing on the shape and form to which our rural life is expected to conform (Majumdar 1955).

In the book ‘Indian Village’, written by Shyama Charn Dube, the author creates a vivid picture of the Indian village and its life. It is a product of the field study conducted in Shamirpet, the village situated near Hyderabad. After setting the scene of the village, the author describes three structures elaborately in three different chapters – social, economic and ritual. After explaining the network of family ties and levels of living, the author talks about living together and ends the book with the recent changes that have been taking place.

Carrying on the Legacy

The sixties and seventies in the last century saw an explosion of village studies. Although social anthropologists were the first to enter the field, which they dominated throughout, scholars from other disciplines – political science, history, economics, and so on – were also attracted (Beteille 1996). It was a very important moment in the history of the country, a moment which could be described as a ‘living revolution’ – bloodless, continuous, increasingly inclusive and rapid (Srinivas 1992). Since around the 1960s, Indian villages have also rarely been considered as the ‘sole horizon of sociality’, but were put within broader contexts (Mines and Yazgi 2010). Although there have been several such writings on the village along these lines, a few stand out. ‘The Twice Born: A Study of High Caste Hindus’ by G. M. Crastairs, published in 1957, is a work on a village near to Udaipur, Rajasthan. This book discusses the personality formation and social character of these castes – Brahmins, Rajputs and Banias – with a psychological orientation. In the same year, ‘Caste and the Economic Frontier’ by F. G. Bailey (1957) was published. The year 1958 saw the publication of ‘Village Life in Northern India: Studies in a Delhi Village’ by Oscar Lewis and V. Barnouw (1958), D. N. Majumdar's ‘Caste and Communication in an Indian Village’ (1958) and S. C. Dube's ‘India's Changing Village: Human Factors in Community Development’ (1958). These were followed in 1960 by G. S. Ghurye's ‘After a Century and a Quarter: Lonikand Then and Now’ (1960), F. G. Bailey's ‘Tribe, Caste and Nation’ (Bailey 1960) and A. C. Mayer's ‘Caste and Kinship in Central India: A Village and its Region’ (1960). These were followed by the publication of ‘Gopalpur: A South Indian Village’ by Alan R. Beals (1962) and R. H. Retztaff's ‘Village Government in India’ (1962). In the same year, Scarlett Epstein, a British-Austrian economist and anthropologist, published her book ‘Economic Development and Social Change in South India’. In this book, the author vividly describes the differential effect of irrigation on two villages, Wangala and Dalena in Karnataka, and the associated social changes and the economic and developmental reasons behind these changes. In 1963, G. S. Ghurye's ‘Anatomy of a Rural-Urban Com-munity’ and G. P. Berreman's ‘Hindus of the Himalayas: Ethnography and Change’ were published. Henry Orenstein's study in Maharashtra resulted in the publication of ‘Gaon: Conflict and Cohesion in an Indian Village’ in 1965. 1969 witnessed the publication of another important book ‘Social Change in a North Indian Village’, the result of a village study in Shahranpur in Uttar Pradesh by A. P. Barnabas (1969). Paul G. Hiebert, an American missiologist's book ‘Konduru: Structure and Integration in a South Indian Village’ and Brenda E. F. Beck's book ‘Peasant Society in Konku: A Study of Right and Left Subcastes in South India’ were published in 1971 and 1972, respectively. In 1974, the book ‘Village Life in South India: Cultural Design and Environmental Variation’ by Alan R. Beals (1974) was published. In this book, based on his work on three villages in the then Mysore state – Elephant, Namhalli and Gopalpur – the author provides an interesting elucidation of the traditional South-Indian worldview, a detailed description of settlement patterns, social structures, agricultural technology and ecology, and an explanation of the various relationships between villages. These works fuelled an important methodological shift from the book view to the field view of India (Beteille 1974). With the methodological and conceptual changes, all these studies eventually constituted the ‘bedrock of modern South Asian anthropology’ (Fuller and Spencer 1990).

Works such as The Remembered Village by M. N. Srinivas, that was part ethnography and part bildungsroman, became common after the 1980s, when the subjectivist reaction against mid-century scientism produced a generation of self-absorption (Celarent 2012). In the late 1980s, within South Asian studies, villages constituted a product of colonial constructivism, overlapping with the more general anthropological questioning of classical anthropological locations.

The shift in India's economic orientation in the early years of the 1990s had several implications for the field of rural studies. On the methodological front, the changes were immense. In the last two decades, the questioning of ‘the village’ in anthropology has taken on shades of an ‘imperative’ for ‘methodological change’ (Ferguson 2011). Villages have become a conceptual and spatial prism through which to challenge colonial constructions of the village and its constituents (Busby 2000) and to form alternative forms of kinship (Lambert 2000). Nevertheless, village ethnography today remains trapped in a dialectic opposing the ‘futurist invocation of novel research methods’ against the ‘sceptical defence’ of traditional conceptualisations of anthropological research (Ferguson 2011). In this dialectic, the village is defended against the ‘promotional demolition’ of postmodern critique, which misleadingly recasts the village as a ‘spatially isolated’ and ‘conceptually bounded’ device (Okely 2007). If we understand villages as ‘a field of relations’ (Ferguson 2011), then this field has major implications for anthropological understandings of different kinds. Indian villages provide a unique space for analysing how contemporary methodological challenges build on, and diverge from, those encountered by anthropologists working before the 1980s (Gallo 2015).

The New Century and Millennium

By the early years of the twenty-first century, new discourses about Indian villages began to take shape. Rurality started to be redefined as ‘an imagined entity that is brought into being by particular discourses of rurality that are produced, reproduced and contested by academics, the media, policy-makers, rural lobby groups and ordinary individuals (Woods 2011). An exploration of ‘how different communities define and “know” the rural’ (Heley and Jones 2012) was initiated, and then much more importance was given to various forms of subjectivities. It is needed to understand how the various ‘contests over the legitimate representation of ‘the rural’ might be articulated (Woods 2003).

In recent years, a large number of academic works and writings have appeared. In different directions, they have contributed much to the understanding of the village and its world. In the book ‘Sociology/Anthropology, Nation and the “Village Community”’, published in 2000, the author Surinder S. Jodhka has elaborately described the way village studies were undertaken in India and elsewhere. Vandana Madan in her book ‘The Village in India’ published in 2002, has compiled a set of 20 papers by different authors, grouped into six different chapters – Themes and Perspectives; Caste, Kinship, Locality and Gender; Economy and Survival; Power and Politics; Religion, Culture and Ideology and Development and Change. Yogesh Atal in the chapter ‘The Studies of the Village in India’ in his book ‘Indian Sociology from Where to Where: Footnotes to the History of the Discipline’ (Atal 2003), explores the timeline of village studies in India. The book Caste, Hierarchy, and Individualism: Indian Critiques of Louis Dumont's Contributions, published in 2006 and edited by Ravindra S. Khare, constitutes the Indian response to Dumont's seminal work Homo Hierarchicus. Veena Das, in her essay titled ‘The Anthropological Discourse on India: Reason and the Other’ (2006), offers her own response, by providing, as the name suggests, an anthropological discourse on India. Patricia Uberoi, Nandini Sundar and Satish Deshpande in their book ‘Anthropology in the East: Founders of Indian Sociology and Anthropology’, published in 2007, show how local personalities and influences played a major role in shaping the field. The book Village Matters: Relocating Villages in the Contemporary Anthropology of India by Mines and Yazgi, published in 2010, presents the current scenario of village studies clearly and properly. In similar lines, in the paper ‘Of “Village Studies” and the “Village”: A Disputed Legacy’, the author Manish K. Thakur talks in detail about the history of village studies and their relevance. The famous work ‘The Remembered Village’, first published in 1976, got its second edition published in 2013, this time with a new introduction by Andre Beteille (2012).

Concepts and Theories

It seems that ‘the village is shrinking as a sociological reality, though it still exists as space’ and ‘the village is no longer a site where futures can be planned’ (Gupta 2005). Whenever a dominant paradigm collapses, the fragments remain, and we see the fragments consolidating themselves to take up the challenges of the twenty-first century (Patel 1998). Even though many claim that village studies have lost their relevance, villages remain a target for many researchers. In order to do a constructive job, ‘the past ruptures of the village should be reintegrated’ (Carsten 2007). The nostalgic reconstruction of the village provides a concrete spatial structure necessary for locating and rooting ourselves when changes around and within us destabilize our received identities (Patel 1998). Village studies are far too important to our understanding of economy and society to have atrophied in the way they seem to have been done over the last decade (Harris-White and Janakarajan 2004). Nevertheless, village and rural studies are a legitimate and crucial area of research through which to understand the important social, economic, political and cultural dynamics and tensions that shape the trajectory of Indian society over time (Cabalion and Thivet 2019). One should recall Geertz (1973) to recognise that what matters is not the ‘locus of study’ but the ‘object of study’, and that ‘the place where we study’ does not per se make ‘the place what is that we are studying’. In this light, timeless or bounded representations of the village can be overcome not by claiming that even a remote locality constitutes a ‘world in a tea cup’, but rather that social actions and relations ‘comment on more than themselves’ and ‘speak to much larger issues’ (Geertz 1973).


‘The anthropologist has to be also a novelist able to evoke the life of a whole society’, said Marcel Mauss (1947). In similar lines, Leo Braudy (1970) said that, ‘both novelists and historians sought to form time, to discover plot, and to give compelling and convincing narrative shape to the facts of human life’. These orientations towards a chronological form of presentation, a literary style, and an attention to the values and motives of individual actors have been the dominant elements of the historiographical tradition. Social history is concerned with the lived experience of the past. Tilly (2014) identifies three tasks of the discipline: (1) documenting major structural changes; (2) reconstructing the experiences of ordinary people in the course of those changes, and (3) connecting the two. According to C. Vann Woodward (1968), most treatments of the past were ‘narrative, largely non-analytical’ accounts that are judged by the profession ‘according to old fashioned canons and values: thoroughness of research, objectivity of view, and clarity of logic, together with the lucidity and grace of the writing’. The ‘cliometricians’ – historians with mathematical or logical skills – have defined counterfactuals or hypotheses that can be tested and then subjected the data to elaborate statistical analyses. The research of these social science historians has shed light on patterns of congressional voting, social correlates of political identity, and aspects of economic development. Other scholars have eschewed quantitative methods and have instead embraced the analytical approaches of the social theorists of the period (Henretta 1979). This has indirectly given rise to an interdisciplinary approach, with scholars building upon the theories from anthropology, demography, psychology, rural sociology, and labour economics.

Richard T. Vann (1976) claimed that social history started to focus on human aggregations (churches, sects, social classes, village communities, the family, etc.) rather than on the geographical or environmental regions that were the central subjects of the Annales school of French historians. The positivist approach in social history stems from the influence of Emile Durkheim on Marc Bloch, one of the founders of the Annales School. Like Durkheim, Bloch assumed that ‘society manifested itself in concrete forms which could be observed from the outside very much like the phenomena of nature’. The scope of the analysis and its philosophical underpinnings have changed dramatically after the publication of Braudel's monumental treatise on ‘The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II’ in 1949.

Marxist scholars, like the French structuralists, provide a positivist premise. French Marxist Pierre Vilar declared that the subject matter of history is structured and accessible to thought and is scientifically penetrable like any other kind of reality. Many social historians categorically rejected a Marxist theoretical approach to social history. Yet, they also found much to praise in the writings of Marxists, including Eugene D. Genovese, Christopher Hill, Eric J. Hobsbawm, and Edward P. Thompson. Similar to Levi-Strauss's attack on the empirical and naturalistic views of Radcliffe-Brown, Marx rejected a correspondence theory of truth (Hall 1978) because ‘if things were synonymous with their surface appearances, there would be no need for science’ (Levi-Strauss 1963).

American-born historians represent the ultimate authority on the facts and occupy a distinct epistemological position – an empiricist one based on three interrelated propositions: that human reason has a limited power to understand the world, that models or frameworks can comprehend only the immediate data to which they apply, and that there are no fundamental patterns or structures of human life. On the other hand, theories bending towards general criteria, like the functionalist social theory of Talcott Parsons (1951), have also deeply influenced the thinking of many social historians in the opposite direction. Parsons's idea embodies an anti-empiricist bias because it supports the existence of systematic relations in the world of social reality. Likewise, Sigmund Freud asserts the importance of fundamental patterns in human life and the ability of the disciplined mind to comprehend them. Antonio Gramsci's claim that ‘most men are philosophers’ occupies a somewhat dual position between the worlds of specificity and generality. The study of the ‘collective mentality’ by the French social historian Robert Mandrou, the Marxist device of the histoire problem, Thompson's arguments based on an implicit dialogue with materialist-oriented Marxist scholars like Louis Althusser, on the one hand, and with idealist symbolic anthropologists on the other, Antonio Gramsci's notion of the ‘historic bloc’, the concept of mentalite, the idea of histoire totale are various other important aspects that influenced and guided the journey of social history as a discipline.

There lies a huge academic repository of works on social history in general. James A. Henretta, in his 1979 paper ‘Social History as Lived and Written’, gives us a very clear picture of the history of social history. In Signs of the Times: Clifford Geertz and Historians (1980), Ronald G. Walters effectively explains the impact of Geertz on history and historians. In ‘Geertz, Cultural Systems, and History: From Synchrony to Transformation’ published in 1997, William H. Sewell Jr. speaks about how Geertz became the ‘Ambassador of Anthropology’.

These are only glimpses of the huge academic repository related to the discipline. Social history reached its peak of popularity between 1975 and 1995. Since the 1990s, social history has been increasingly challenged by Cultural history, which emphasizes language, beliefs and assumptions and their causal role in the behaviour of groups, that is, communities. This challenge can be answered by an amalgamation of these two histories.


The association of science with the reductionism of socio-biology has largely relegated interest in the theoretical contributions of mathematics and science to biological anthropology (Weston 2008). The universality of knowledge and the fluidity of theories allow for these associations, assimilations and, rarely, annihilations. It is more the case in anthropology, given its difficulty in distancing itself from various factors, both human and non-human.

The early twentieth-century philologist Ferdinand de Saussure demonstrated the crucial difference between ‘langue’ (the basic system of grammatical rules and conventions) and ‘parole’ (the ordinary act of speech that unconsciously embodies these norms). Claude Levi-Strauss identified such an analytical distinction between ‘social relations’, the empirical reality of human life, and ‘social structure’, the models built upon it. For both de Saussure and Levi-Strauss, the duty of the scholar was to decode reality, to penetrate beneath the surface of human existence to its basic structures. Braudel proceeded to apply this analytic framework to the history of the vast Mediterranean world. This idea was followed in subsequent studies of social history. Michel Foucault, however, rejected the ‘history of ideas’ in favour of ‘archaeology of knowledge’. According to Foucault, the past consists of separate layers or epistemes, each with its own internally consistent paradigmatic vision, and this means that certain concepts may be inherited from the past, but their significance is radically transformed by the new context of meaning. Thus, the study of antecedents gives way to an analysis of relationships. Although Foucault is extreme here, he reveals the tension between a structuralist mode of representation and a chronological account of a causal sequence. This tension can be smoothed by a careful mixture of social history and anthropology.

Like anthropology, ‘history too is claimed as a cultural semiosis, where semiosis retains its meaning both as notation and as a mimetic gesture or representation, and where through the notion of culture, the past is incorporated into the present structures of knowledge and the prevailing perceptions of time’ (Panourgia and Marcus 2008). What was expected of history was not the representation of something fictitious, but an investigation into the invisibility of reality (Momi-gliano 1969). Culture and history stand as representor and representment, as signifier and signified (as Liakos argues), which means that the cultural system is the context through which the meaning of history emerges. It implies that history and culture form a network of structural relations, a circle of reciprocal semiosis (Panourgia and Marcus 2008). Once again, Saussure and Lev-Strauss are echoed here.

There is a conceptual problem with social history in particular and history in general, and the theoretical underpinnings that anthropology can bring to them. What do we have in mind when we talk about history and how has this understanding of ‘History’ been formed through interdisciplinary discussions between history and anthropology (Liakos 2008)? Antonis Liakos, in his essay, ‘Canonical and Anticanonical Histories’, rightly points out that the term ‘history’ is a linguistic and cultural indicator of diverse ways of understanding social temporality. The concept of history and the meaning given to the term depend on the historicity that each culture produces, since the concept of history and, more generally, the understanding of chronology belong to entirely different categories of social experience. What we call history is tightly woven into every cultural environment, placed at the intersection of two semiotic systems – investigation and representation. The type of writing we call history is a product of modernity, a plant of Western culture that has been transplanted all over the world, substituting for and obscuring other forms of History – creating an epistemic rupture which transforms all other histories into the prehistory of History.

The problem does not end there. It becomes methodological. The anthropologist is in ‘a permanent exile’ as someone who sits uncomfortably on the dialectical edge of ‘the old and the new’ dodging both with equal dexterity (Said 1996). Interpretive anthropology made visible the shared ways of thinking between anthropology and the humanities (Ortner 1999). In hermeneutics, there is a continuous dialectical dialogue between the ‘experience-near’ perceptions of the native and ‘experience-distant’ perceptions of the ethnographer (Geertz 1973), which takes place in a global universe of simulacra, where the mimetics of the simulacrum encounters the mimetics of ritual (Abeles 2008).


Understanding these concepts and theories sheds light on the possibilities for further studies. A thorough review and the research presented in this paper could result in the formation of a number of conclusions.

Whatever the debates and discussions and wherever they may lead, the permeability of disciplines and the permeability of theories and ideas cannot be denied. If closely observed and keenly understood, anthropology and social history are inseparable. Any anthropological work would have an element of social history and any social historical work would have an element of anthropology. For example, agrarian studies have been ‘contextualised in a historical framework’ (Breman 1997). Anthropology exists in every academic field, as no discipline is devoid of traces of anthropology. But the two frames of analyses have always remained silent about each other in description or presentation. For example, in a recent analysis of Dube's village monographs, Saurabh Dube (2010) finds that the notions of history, change and transformation are not absent, they are just muted (Thakur 2013). Moreover, these monographs project the villagers ‘as subjects moulding the present, rather than as mere vectors and victims of timeless tradition’ (Dube 2010). Unmuting and more participation are needed to allow the objects to reveal themselves like Schrodinger's cat.

Culture needs to be studied from a number of perspectives, and these perspectives cannot necessarily be added up to a unified summation (Rosaldo 1993). But, they produce positionalities, and they can be located and examined in very different ways that do not just assume but show with certainty that human social life is meaning-laden, meaning-making, intense and real (Ortner 1999). What is needed are scholarly studies that artistically interweave history and anthropology.

Anthropology and anthropologists have long accepted their suspended existence of belonging neither here nor there, existing in Victor Turner's ‘between and betwixt’. For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live and the anthropologist should be at every moment both inside things and outside them – Munchhausen pulling himself out of the swamp by his pig-tail and thereby creating a knowledge which wants to be more than either verification or speculation (Adorno 1974). The association with social history resolves these dilemmas, trilemmas and paradoxes.

‘Treating history making as a field of social and cultural practice, that is, to view historicizing practices as anthropologists view other social and cultural practices’, gives rise to social history, ‘impressed equally by the social structures and mentality and culture’ (Panourgia and Marcus 2008). Historicity unfolds as an eternal return, the recurrent manifestation of the experience of ontogeny, which recapitulates its ontology (Sahlins 1987). This underscores the inseparable relation between these disciplines.

In a socio-historical study, these theoretical stands and strands of anthropology and history can be intertwined in order to produce the social history of a target like a village. Concepts and methods from anthropology and social history can be applied in different combinations and proportions, depending on the dimension of the research under process. Over-emphasis on certain differentiating elements can be avoided thereby emphasising degree rather than kind.

After all such enquiries, it is pertinent that Anthropology and Social History have much to offer in unity rather than in separation. Furthermore, the village becomes the most explored but still unfound truth. Considering the significance of the village in general and the Indian village in particular, such a socio-historical study of villages would definitely have the potential to gauge the world from novel meaningful dimensions. After all, ‘He who controls the past controls the future’ (Orwell in his novel ‘1984’).


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